The Mandan Indians were a small, peaceful tribe located at the mouth of the Knife River on the Missouri near present day Bismarck, North Dakota. The Mandan were most known for their friendliness and their homes, called earth lodges. The women of the Mandan tribe tended their gardens, prepared food, and maintained lodges while the men spent their time hunting or seeking spiritual knowledge. The Mandan Indians performed many ceremonies such as the Buffalo Dance and the Okipa Ceremony that have been the center of great interest to many historians. The Mandan are also an important part of history because Lewis and Clark spent their first winter with these people and met Sacagawea, who helped guide them for the rest of their journey west.
Mandan villages were the center of the social, spiritual, and economic lives of the Mandan Indians. Villages were strategically located on bluffs overlooking the river for defense purposes, limiting attacks to one land approach. The Mandan lived in earth lodges, which are extremely large, round huts that are 15 feet high and 40-60 feet in diameter. Each hut had a vestibule entrance, much like the pattern of an Eskimo igloo, and a square hole on top, which served as a smokestack. Each earth lodge housed 10-30 people and their belongings, and villages contained 50-120 earth lodges. The frame of an earth lodge was made from tree trunks, which were covered with criss-crossed willow branches. Over the branches they placed dirt and sod, which coined the term earth lodge. This type of construction made the roofs strong enough to support people on nights of good weather. The floors of earth lodges were made of dirt and the middle was dug out to make a bench around the outer edge of the lodge. Encompassing the village were stockades of poles as tall as six feet high to prevent enemy attacks. In the middle of a Mandan village was a large, circular, open space that was called the central plaza. In the middle of the plaza was a sacred cedar post that represented the Lone Man, a hero to the Mandan. At the North end of the plaza was the medicine or ceremonial lodge. The arrangement of earth lodges around the central plaza represented the social status of each family. Villagers who had important ceremonial duties were located closer to the plaza than those who were not.
The rich, floodplain fields that surrounded the village made agriculture the basis of Mandan existence. On top of preparing food and maintaining lodges, sustaining gardens was the task of women within the village. The agricultural year began in April when women would clear the fields by burning the old stalks and weeds of the previous years crops. Around May they planted rows of corn, beans, tobacco, pumpkin, sunflowers and squash perpendicular to the sun so that the crops would get the most sunlight. To tend their gardens, women used tools such as a digging stick, rake, and hoe made out of wood or buffalo bones. Mandan gardens had many enemies, including prairie dogs, birds, and small rodents. In order to protect their gardens from these predators they often constructed scarecrows out of buffalo hide. Another way Mandan women tried to protect their gardens was by practicing rituals that called on the supernatural for help. Often, women performed daily cleansing rituals before entering their gardens by rubbing sage over their bodies, which they believed would protect their crops from worms and disease. Harvesting began in late August with squash and ended in October with corn. After harvest, women would dry the corn in scaffolds that were built above the ground. After the corn was dry, women picked the seeds that they would use for the next years garden and the rest was buried with other dried garden items in caches (underground storage pits) to preserve them through the winter. These caches were deep enough to require a ladder and often took several days to build. Once they were built they were lined with grass and buffalo hide. The dried corn, squash, and sunflowers were placed inside. The caches were then covered with a layer of buffalo hide, then a layer of dirt, and grass on top. Besides vegetables, women supplemented the diets of their families by digging roots, picking berries, and catching fish.
The men of the Mandan villages were warriors whose main pursuit was buffalo, but they also hunted deer, elk, antelope, bear, and waterfowl. Boys started training for hunting soon after they were able to walk. Grandfathers would give young boys bows and blunt arrows to play with and often initiated simulated battles between two groups of boys to teach them how to fight properly. At the age seven, boys were allowed to shoot and kill rabbits, which they were allowed to keep and most times gave to their grandfathers as repayment for giving them their first bow and arrow. As men grew older they were allowed to join hunting parties as a scout where they would cook, keep fires, and tend camp for the older men. As they grew older and wiser they would join in the actual hunting party. When men became confident in their hunting skills they would initiate a hunting party of their own. This was risky because if they did not accomplish a successful hunt they lost social status within the village. Before leaving on a buffalo hunt men took sweat baths to rid them of their human smell and would disguise themselves in wolf skin. The main weapons used for hunting were a bow and arrow, knives and clubs. Mandan warriors tracked buffalo for many miles. If they could not kill them with their bows and arrows they would stampede the herd while trying to separate on…..e from the group, which they would eventually drive off of a cliff. Mandan Indians only killed as much meat as they could carry back to the village on their backs or in a contraption known as a travois. As soon as the buffalo were killed, what could not be eaten right away was cut into thin strips for drying to be taken back to the village. Buffalo provided meat, hides, bones, and sinew to the Mandan villages, which were used in everyday articles such as weapons, clothing, and tools. People within a village could tell what a warrior had accomplished by the way he dressed or by the markings he had. Certain stripes of paint, feathers, and clothing told fellow villagers what or how many buffalo or other type of game a man had killed. Greatness in battle led to a higher status within the village, and women celebrated successful hunts with song, dance, and food.
The Mandan Indians performed several rituals for certain seasons or initiations. The two most studied rituals were the Buffalo Dance and the Okipa Ceremony. The Buffalo Dance was performed to bring the buffalo near enough to the village so they could be killed. Over a course of three nights the elder men of the tribe sat in a circle and smoked a pipe while the younger men of the tribe presented their wives, naked except for a buffalo robe, to the elders and asked them to sleep with them. The young man kept offering his wife until the elder accepted. After the women were accepted, eight men participated in the actual dance and painted themselves black, red, and white with green willow boughs on their heads and buffalo skins on their backs. The dancers portrayed both hunters and buffalo and danced around the lodge and imitated an actual hunt. On the last day of the dance a man disguised as the spirit of famine entered the village. Young villagers shouted and threw stones until the spirit was driven away and then the entire tribe participated in a feast.
The Okipa Ceremony was a four-day event where young men were initiated into the Mandan society, and involved a “self-torture feature.” This ceremony happened once or twice a year after a buffalo hunt when a man, wishing to fill an obligation to the village, would sponsor the ceremony. This man was called the Okipa Maker and in order to sponsor such a ceremony he must accumulate a vast amount of goods, which would in turn be given away during the ceremony. The Okipa Maker depended on his family and clan to help provide the goods needed for this event. Before and during the ceremony young boys who wished to become men within the village endured long periods of fasting during which a young boy hoped to be visited by a spirit, in animal form, who would give him “power” and guide him through life. The nature of their vision was reported to elders to determine their role within the village. After the vision, the young men chose a family member to cut holes through the skin on their chest and inserted two skewers, attached to a long piece of hide, that would suspend him in the air from the central beams of the medicine lodge. Once the boy was rendered unconscious, he was lowered to the ground to regain consciousness without harassment from others. The objective of the ceremony was to test a mans endurance and strength to insure he was indeed worthy of becoming a warrior.
The Mandan Indians are also known for the fact that Lewis and Clark spent their first winter among these people. Lewis and Clark arrived in the Mandan village in November of 1804 after 1,600 miles and 164 days of traveling and within four weeks constructed Fort Mandan, which they named after their Indian friends. Lewis and Clark stayed with the Mandans for five months during which time they met a fur trader named Toussaint Charbonneau, his Shoshoni wife Sacagawea, and their infant son Jean Baptiste. Sacagaweas homeland was in the Rocky Mountains, most likely near present day Lehmi, Idaho, but she had been kidnapped when she was twelve years old and five years later was sold to Charbonneau. Lewis and Clark hired Charbonneau and his wife as interpreters and guides to help them cross the western mountains. Sacagawea turned out to be very useful to Lewis and Clarks expedition with her incredible sense of direction and by teaching the 33-member group how to find wild food such as artichokes, carrots and potatoes. She also mended their clothing with thread and a needle made out of bird bone. By the time the trip was completed she had made 338 moccasins for the men of the expedition.
Contact with Europeans in the late 1700s put the Mandan up against disease, an enemy they could not fight. Small pox forced the Mandan to move to Fort Berthhold Indian Reservation, along with their neighbors the Arikaras and the Hidatsas, who were also plagued with disease. To this day many Mandan Indians live near Mandan, North Dakota right across the Missouri River from Bismarck, North Dakota. Every year the Mandan Indians and several other area tribes have a pow wow where they perform dances and sell jewelry and food for audiences from all around the world. Fort Lincoln State Park Mandan Village is a park located just outside Mandan that has a small village of actual earth lodges that visitors can walk into and see. Visitors feel like they have been taken back into a part of history because all the items one would have found during that time are in the lodges. One lodge even has a man (not real) hanging from the rafters representing the Okipa Ceremony. The park is a truly amazing sight to see and keeps the memory alive and well about the Mandan Indians heritage and way of life.